Johnny Are You Queer?

I have been wanting to rewatch Johnny Tremain for quite some time now.

When Disney Plus went live, the first thing I did (after subscribing) was search for it there; I did this at least once every two weeks since the service launched, to no avail. I would look for it on Amazon Prime, Netflix, everywhere; whenever I would sign up for yet another streaming service I would look for it. I never quite understood–and still don’t–why Disney Plus doesn’t have it; but the other day at work I realized I hadn’t looked for it for a while, so signed into Disney Plus on my browser: nope. Oh might as well give Amazon Prime a try, I thought, although Disney not having one of its own properties while another streaming service had it was, I thought, highly unlikely.

And yet, there it was: to rent or buy. I didn’t want to buy it, and I really hate paying to rent to stream something when I already pay for far too many streaming services (I really need to get past the mentality of subscribing when I want to watch something when it’s far cheaper in the long run to merely rent the movie or show), but I’v been wanting to rewatch this movie for years and there it finally was; so I did, and rewatched it yesterday whilst making my daily allotment of condom packs.

I also remembered, when I found the film, that Johnny Tremain was my gateway drug to not only my lifelong interest in American history–which eventually led to an interest in history in general. We had an assembly at my elementary school to watch the movie, and I saw it again when it aired on The Wonderful World of Disney (it may even have still been Disney’s Wonderful World of Color). I eventually read the book, which I got from a Scholastic Book Fair, and it became a treasured favorite. I also recognized, before rewatching the movie as a sixty-year-old, that it was a Disney film aimed for kids made in the 1950’s during the Red Scare when we were all living under the shadow of the mushroom cloud; Walt himself was, among many other things, a deeply conservative pro-America anti-Communist homophobe, and given all those things, it was going to most likely be–if looked at with a cold, judgmental, independent eye–a barely disguised propaganda film. (I am also curious to reread the book; since it was published in 1943, during the height of the second world war, it was also probably pro-American propaganda, when all the country needed to be united to believe that we were fighting evil to make the world a better place, and since American democracy was the be-all end-all…you see what I mean?)

I mean, once you recognize and identify Lost Cause mythology as an ideation to perpetrate and protect white supremacy, it’s also relatively easy to start reexamining all of American history and see the mythology that has been built up around the founding and creation of the country, as well as the deification of the Founding Fathers.

But while I was researching the book and movie the other day, I also came across a paper–queer theory–by Dr. Frank Henderson at Furman University that essentially reexamines the text of the novel from a queer perspective looking for subtext: the piece is titled “Could Johnny Tremain Be Gay? Reinterpretation as a Subversive Act” and was published in the Journal of Homosexuality (I read the abstract, and an article about it, rather than paying $40 to access the actual paper and read it; seriously, how do academics research if this stuff is so expensive? I will probably try to track a copy down through the library; which I guess, actually, is what academics do), and it gave me some pause for thought. I do remember that Johnny was more bratty and selfish in the book than he was in the movie (I remember being startled by this when I read the book the first time) and he literally had nothing but disdain for Cilla or any other girl in the book (which, at the time, was part and parcel of that weird societal norm or belief that prepubescent boys think girls are icky and don’t like them or want anything to do with them–again, very odd in a heteronormative culture) but when he becomes friends with Rab, an older boy involved with the Sons of Liberty, he almost idol-worships the older boy and allows himself to forget his innate selfishness and get involved with something bigger than himself–the revolutionary thinking that led Boston to revolt in the first place. That can be read, as Dr. Henderson states, as a queer relationship between the boys, and that Johnny could be read as queer. I seriously doubt that was what Esther Forbes was thinking when she wrote the book–the book was meant for boys and there was, as I said, that weird “boys don’t like girls” norm for a very long time (it certainly was a consistent theme in Disney productions aimed at boys; same with the Hardy Boys book and other mystery/adventure series aimed at boys from the time). This was in theory erased from the film…but I’m not entirely sure it was.

First of all, there’s absolutely no question that Hal Stalmaster, who played Johnny but never really worked much afterwards, mostly guesting on television shows, was a stunningly beautiful young man.

He also wasn’t a very good actor, but the heavy-handed direction of any Disney live-action film aimed at kids for a very long time didn’t inspire the best work from the cast (Mary Poppins, of course, being an exception).

The young actor who played Rab was also ridiculously good looking–and turned out to be a younger Richard Beymer (billed as Dick) who would go on to play Tony in West Side Story and later, Twin Peaks–and they certainly had more chemistry together than Johnny had with Cilla, who was turned into a love interest of sorts, with him giving her a quick peck on the cheek (their only intimacy) as he runs through the streets of Boston with the news that the British would be leaving Boston “by sea”.

The movie was very typical Americana–so yes, propaganda–which sterilized and cleaned up the period in Boston before the outbreak of the war, with rather stiff pronouncements about ideals and principles and freedom and the rights of man and liberties and tyranny–all the patriotic buzzwords cast about by people who want to silence those who don’t agree with them–without any real explanation of what that means.

And yet, as oversimplified and “cleaned up” as this is made to be in the movie, it’s still effective–it’s very stirring to think about the nerve of the American rebels, doing something practically unheard of in history–not just defying their king (there was a long history of rebellions against the worst abuses of kingship throughout the centuries; just the century before the British actually beheaded their king and did without one for eleven or so years; 150 years before Louis XVI went to the guillotine in Paris) but defying the might of the most powerful and richest empire the world had ever seen. It’s hard not to think about–although everyone in this movie is a revolutionary, all Bostonians except for the villains, and the villainous American loyalists are actually worse than the British military themselves–what that period must have been like to live through; the divided loyalties, the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor, spies and treachery and murders. (I’d love to write a historical mystery set in Boston during this period, actually.)

It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not a great one; and it certainly does its part in upholding the mythology created about the American revolution.

And yes, this could easily be yet another essay.

Take Good Care of Her

As the launch date for my book draws nearer and nearer, I find myself not experiencing the kind of stress and anxiety that I usually feel as the clock winds down. Maybe it’s because I am making the effort to promote the book this time around? Finding the time to do so? Paying more attention than I usually do when I have a book coming out? I don’t know why I am feeling so much more relaxed than I ordinarily do in the final days before this release, but it’s nice to have some awareness—other than the usual stopping in the middle of something to think, oh yes, I have a book coming out—is it today or tomorrow? I should probably do something about that, shouldn’t I?

It really is a wonder that I have any career of any kind, seriously.

And maybe it’s just the swing back from the twenty months or so of nightmarish existence, but I do feel like I am doing good work when I am writing these days. I don’t really remember much of the final push to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and out of the way, but I do remember doing the page proofs and thinking, you kind of did what you wanted to with this, well done! One of my big worries whenever I start writing something new is the fear I’ve already written the story, albeit in a different form; I was worried, almost constantly, that I was plagiarizing Lake Thirteen, my other ghost story, in this book. But the stories are very different, and the main character in each are quite different from each other. I think the mood in both books—the atmosphere I was creating—are very similar to each other, but I was trying to do something Gothic and almost dream-like with both.

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve always worried about writing about the South, and Alabama, in particular. How does one write about the South without dealing with the racism, present and past, of the region? How do you write honestly, with realistic Southern characters, without touching on that third rail of enslavement and war? Not all Southerners are racists, of course, just as not all Southerners are homophobes (I do make that point—about them not being all homophobes—in the second or third chapter of the book). But you cannot write about the South without mentioning that whole “Lost Cause/states’ rights” nonsense; that misplaced pride in something that was, at its core, evil. I was not educated in the South; I started school in the Chicago public education system; we moved out to the suburbs for junior high and my first two years of high school, finishing in Kansas. I was never taught in school that the root cause of the Civil War was anything other than slavery; and in all my extensive outside reading of American history, I never came across any of that. (I knew that the Southern politicians were all shouting “states’ rights!” in the lead-up to secession; but this was subterfuge. They couldn’t win the argument about slavery on moral grounds, so they fought against emancipation on Constitutional grounds. And, as I often note whenever someone trots out the tired states’ rights canard, the only right they cared about was the right to own slaves, and they sure as hell wanted the Fugitive Slave Act enforced against the will of the free states, didn’t they?)

I also like to point out that all those lovely, wonderful society ladies in Gone with the Wind—Melanie, Mrs. Meade, Mrs. Elsing, Mrs. Merriweather, etc.—would all be full-on Trump voters today. (I’ve not read the book in years, but while I do remember that in several places, Ashley talks about how he would have freed the enslaved people at Twelve Oaks had the war not come; but Melanie talks about the Lost Cause with all the fervor of a believer at a revival meeting in a tent…which makes Melanie, theoretically the moral center of the book, the biggest racist of the main characters in the story—and yes, I know, Margaret Mitchell did a great job of propagandizing the “Cause” as the Confederacy rather than slavery; but there’s an awful lot of racism and “they were better off enslaved” in that book, which, along with the movie, has done a great job of romanticizing something hideous and ugly )

I could write volumes about Gone with the Wind and how problematic both book and movie are (not the least of which is that Rhett rapes Scarlett but she enjoys it), but that’s an entirely different subject, deserving of its own entry (or two or three) or an essay—but I will say this one last thing on the Gone with the Wind subject: since the movie was released, for decades it imprinted on the minds of white Americans “this is what the antebellum South, and enslavement, was like”—when it was actually nothing of the sort and bore no resemblance to anything true or right.

One of the things I wanted to make clear with Bury Me in Shadows is that the shadow of white supremacy can be overcome and the continuing link, from generation to generation (parents teaching it to their children, who teach it to their children) can be broken by a person not blinded to realities or brainwashed by romantic fantasies; that character in this book for me is Jake’s mother, Glynis Chapman. Glynis rejected the white supremacy/racism she was raised with and did not pass that on to her son. I’ve always felt—and this was best exemplified with that Miss California who all those years ago blamed her homophobia on “It’s how I was raised”; it’s how I was raised is perhaps the laziest, most disgraceful, and embarrassing excuse ever given for perpetuating hatred and discrimination. It essentially states that you are incapable of thinking logically and rationally for yourself; you are incurious, and your parents are God-like, with beliefs and values that are above question. At least own your bigotry and don’t blame it on your parents because at some point, you must become your own person; you either continue to blindly believe everything your parents told you, or you actually become a functional human being capable of making up your own mind rather than simply blindly parroting what you were taught. I began questioning everything quite young, frankly; more so than most, but still to a far lesser degree than I should have. I didn’t question American mythology as young as I should have, but I did start questioning religion quite young–and I am also happy that I never fossilized my beliefs and values but rather kept them fluid and receptive to change based on new information, or more in depth thought.

Racism, and white supremacy, are evil. Period. Race theory has no validity or origin in actual science—the genetic differences between white people and non-white people are so infinitesimal as to be practically non-existent—and were created for no other reason than to justify western European colonialism, exploitation, and looting the resources of the rest of the world for power and money. Originally cloaked in religious fervor (if there was gold and riches for the crown, there were souls to be won for the cross), even American expansionism at the expense of the indigenous people of this continent was called manifest destiny, which gave mass genocide and the theft of land a cloak of holiness: it is the destiny of the white man to rule over others and expand his empire.

And it can’t get more white supremacist than that, can it?

I’ve never understood the notion of racial pride, frankly; likewise, I’ve never really grasped the mentality behind ancestor-worship, as evidenced by Confederate apologists. Regardless of reason, the truth is, and always has been, that the Southern states tried to destroy the union, period. They fired on the flag. The great irony that the Confederate apologists also consider themselves to be more patriotic Americans than those who think the Confederates were traitors–talk about cognitive dissonance–is something that always amuses me. How do you chant USA! USA! during the Olympics or other international sporting events of any kind when you have a Confederate flag decal on your car? Why are you do defensive about the crimes of your ancestors, when you have no more control over what they did during their lifetimes than they have over yours? No one can help who they are descended from and no one pays for the crimes of their ancestors. Confederate monuments never should have been erected (again, the groups that raised the money for them and put them up were run by women like Melanie Wilkes and Mrs. Meade and the other society women from Gone with the Wind) so there should have been no need for discussion, debate, or confrontation over their removal; as I always say, “Where are the statues of Benedict Arnold or the other Tories from the Revolutionary War? Weren’t they just standing behind their values and beliefs? They also saw themselves as patriots–just for the King.” I am incredibly happy not to see the statue of traitor Robert E. Lee every time I drive home from work–I hated having to try to explain the existence of the statue and the circle named for him to visitors…I used to say, “And here’s one of our monuments to treason, Lee Circle” every time I drove around it with a visitor in the car.

So, no, Bury Me in Shadows is definitely not a Lost Cause narrative that romanticizes the antebellum Southern states or the Civil War–and is definitely not the place to look for one.

It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)

So, for today’s BSP about Bury Me in Shadows, I am going to talk about where the actual story that goes to the heart of the plot came from.

My grandmother was probably one of the biggest influences in my life, for both good and bad. I won’t talk about the bad—I was raised to believe you never bleed in public—and there was quite a bit of it; I didn’t speak to her the last thirteen or so years of her life. But the good was good, really. She loved old movies and passed that love of the glory days of Hollywood on to me; she always encouraged me to read and to be a writer; and she was the one who instilled in me my love for crime films and (to a lesser degree) horror ones—what she used to call “scary movies”; I watched The Haunting for the first time with her, and sometimes when I rewatch an old classic, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Letter, I remember watching it with her on the couch. She was also the one who introduced me to some authors I love, Victoria Holt (The Secret Woman) and Mary Stewart (The Ivy Tree), and she also encouraged my interest in history, which she also really enjoyed. She used to tell me stories about the past all the time when I was young—stories that at the time, and for most of my life, I remembered as being “family history” and was very surprised as an adult to find out they were fairly common legends and stories from all over the South, as well as from books and movies. In other words, none of the stories were true…but when I was thinking about this again the other day it occurred to me that it was entirely possible I was remembering it wrong—it was a long fucking time ago, after all, and my memory has been wrong before. It’s entirely possible she was just telling me stories, that I assumed were family histories…anyway, there were a lot of them, and when I was in college I started writing a lot of the ones I remembered down. They were often tales of blood and murder and crime; sometimes ghost stories.

The Lost Boys, the legend I used as the basis for the book’s background, is one of those stories.

And yes, bits and pieces of the story are apocryphal; sewn together by my grandmother into one story to entertain me.

Long story short: before the Civil War the county where my family comes from (again, not sure if this is true or not; the histories of the area I’ve read indicate that it’s not; so she either was weaving a story for me or I misunderstood the story or altered it in my memory as I got older) used to mostly belong entirely to one family—from which I am theoretically descended from (my grandmother also had a lot of delusions of grandeur)—and after the war, they lost nearly everything, except for a small tract of land that still remains in the family to this day. Anyway, the father and the oldest son went off to war, leaving his wife and two younger sons behind. The father was killed in the war. When the son came home after the war was over, the house had burned to the ground and there was no sign of wife or the two youngest sons anywhere; they’d vanished without a trace. No one ever knew what became of them; and the story, according to my grandmother, was that a deserting Union soldier burned the house and killed them (yes, the same story as appeared in Gone with the Wind, among others; my grandmother also told me another story about a Union deserter committing murder of a defenseless Southern woman—which I also turned into a short story that collects dust in my files), and that on or around the anniversary of their deaths, you could hear the younger boy calling for his mother in the woods near where the old house had been. Good stuff, right? I certainly thought so, and what a great basis for a story.

Of course, when I started researching the history of the county, none of this appeared to be true—the Union army never came any closer to the county than Tuscaloosa, for one, so the odds of a deserter making it all the way there on foot are pretty slim, and especially if no one else saw him—and of course, none of my ancestors owned most of the county. But it was a good story, even if not true, and I felt that writing about it could make for an interesting tale. My main character, Jake, is aware of the old family legend; he wrote a paper about it in high school, but doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a legend. I thought it would be cool to leave the ruins of the original house there, deep in the woods, far from the county road and the current domicile of the family, the crumbling house on the dirt road just off the county road. I also brought in a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama, excavating the ruins—one of the few sites left that haven’t been excavated—and the professor leading the team, Dr. Brady (named after a historian friend), while intrigued and interested in the legend, isn’t trying to find proof one way or the other; he’s simply interested in what information about how the family lived can be unearthed.

The book is more than this, of course; but the Lost Boys legend was the starting point from which the rest of the book grew. I have a very complicated relationship with Alabama, to be honest; it’s my homeplace and I love the state. It’s stunningly beautiful. Even the poor rural county we came from is beautiful, with rolling hills and small mountains covered in pine forest, hollows filled with kudzu, muddy orange streams and rivers, riotously colored flowering bushes, and the air…oh, how wonderfully clean and fresh and pure the air smells. I love the orange dirt, and how round and smooth the gravel can be. The sky is a gorgeous cerulean, and of course, when it rains, it really rains. I can remember how still and heavy and damp the hot summer air was, the gnats and mosquitoes and dirt daubers and wasps and hornets and bees and horseflies. Whenever I stop as I drive through on my way somewhere else (usually Kentucky or Atlanta), I am always amazed at how lovely the young people are working in the small highway-side town’s fast food places. I remember screen doors with a coil so they’d always shut (or slam, if you just let go), and the big red Coca-Cola coolers with the bottle opener on the side in the general stores—and of course, the big old style Dr Pepper signs, that looked like a clock with only the numbers 10, 2 and 4—because that was the time for a Dr Pepper. (I also remember it was considered a cure-all when you were sick; just heat some Dr Pepper on the stove and add lemon; just like 7-Up was a cure for an upset stomach.)

But the state’s history– enslaved people, what happened to the indigenous tribes, Jim Crow, Selma, the institutionalized racism–is also deeply problematic. How does one write about the problematic history of the state? How do you point out how wrong all of that is without becoming preachy? I’ve often taken issue with white-written narratives about the pre-Civil Rights era in the South, as well as those set during that era and after; I remember reading one book where the heroine was doing research about the history of an incredibly racist town where a race-related murder had occurred, driven by the Klan–but focusing on the good, non-racist, non-Klan members of the town–what I call the see? We aren’t all bad take. I definitely didn’t want to write one of those stories. A few years back, I found a copy of a book I read when I was fairly young–it belonged to my uncle, actually–about the Civil Rights era in Alabama, called The Klansman by William Bradford Huie, whom I believe was actually a journalism professor at the University of Alabama…and it was different than I remembered, yet still chilling. I’m not sure what Huie was trying to do with the book, to be honest; the Klan sympathizers really came across badly, and even those who weren’t out and out members of the Klan were still racists who saw the Klan as a necessary “evil”–the sheriff couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan, and he spends the book trying to walk the line between pleasing the Klan and not doing anything illegal…but you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. (I read it the same summer as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also belonged to my uncle; the two books are forever linked in my mind.)

Bury Me in Shadows may be many things, but it’s not a Lost Cause narrative, nor is it a “look at the nice white saviors” novel, either.

And I think that’s enough about that for today.

Every Song Is You

Wednesday morning!

Yesterday was a really good day. I was productive again–not as much as the previous two days, but still, I’m counting it as a win. I even wrote. I worked on a short story and an essay–granted, the short story was a revision, so somewhat easier than actually writing something from scratch on a blank page–but it was still pretty awesome to be flexing some creative muscles again. I also think my editorial eye has become a lot more clear than it’s been in over twenty-one months; I definitely think I am going to be tweaking this story perhaps one more time. But it felt amazing to be writing again–rewriting, as it were–and so my new plan is to try to get this three short stories I’ve been trying to revise forever revised this week, and start working on A Streetcar Named Murder in earnest this weekend.

Tonight after work I am going to go to the gym for Leg Day, and try to get some more editing done. I also want to finish reading Velvet Was the Night so I can start my Horror for Halloween reading, beginning with the annual reread of The Haunting of Hill House. I had also planned to read one of the Stephen Kings I have on hand but not yet read–probably The Institute–and another Paul Tremblay at the very least; but I’ve got to finish what I am already reading before I can move on to anything else. I think this decommitment to watching college football all day on Saturday will help, and just the occasional check-in on the Saints on Sunday should also help free up some of my time. I think today’s lower energy mode is probably just the usual oh I’ve gotten up at six for three straight mornings tired; even now as the coffee kicks into gear I am starting to feel more alert and more on top of things–which is pretty fucking cool. Yay!

I’ve also been writing blog posts to promote Bury Me in Shadows; I wrote a rather lengthy one about the backstory behind the book–where the Civil War ghost story aspect of the book came from, and why it was kind of difficult to write such a thing in the present time, knowing that the rebel side was wrong and problematic–and the underlying root cause of all the racial tension and problems we still face as a country today (I’ve preordered The 1619 Project, and can’t wait to read it). One of my primary worries/concerns with writing this book was how easy it would be to step wrong and write something offensive. I still worry from time to time that I did exactly that, and when the book is released there will be controversy. But if I got something wrong, or wrote something that is offensive, I will own my mistakes, apologize for them, and try to do better going forward.

I don’t understand when admitting you were wrong or made a mistake became a sign of weakness in this country. I also don’t understand it. I don’t like being wrong, but I am also not going to double down on being wrong. Not meaning any offense doesn’t mean you won’t offend someone, and for the record, I’m sorry you were offended is not the same thing as I’m sorry I offended you. The first is a non-apology, and the speaker isn’t really sorry for what they said, they are only sorry you were offended by it. The second takes ownership of the situation and doesn’t let the original speaker off the hook, and personalizes the apology. I also don’t understand why this is so hard for people to understand.

Yesterday Twitter was all abuzz about the Kidney Woman story in the New York Times, which tried to stir up the whole argument about drawing inspiration from someone else’s life or story. I’ve always believed that it’s impossible for any writer to create either a character or situation lifted from real life; if anything, it’s only a starting place, because a writer cannot know everything about any real life person–you don’t know their every experience, you don’t know what the seminal experiences that created who they are and how they react to things, you don’t know how their mind works or how they even think; at best, all you really see if how they outwardly react to a person or a situation–you don’t know what they are thinking, you don’t know their triggers, you don’t know anything, really–so you have to make up a lot of it, and you base it on your observations of how that person behaves and reacts. Observation is very key, yes, and an understanding of psychology, but again, everyone is different and no one can predict how anyone else will think or react or behave in any given situation. Which is why we are always surprised by the behavior of people we know; we don’t really know them at any great depth so of course we are always going to be surprised and caught off guard by their actions. Nobody likes to think people talk about them behind their back; no one really wants to know what people that dislike say about them. But you have to understand that it’s very human–friends tell each other things, and everyone talks about everyone else (it always amazes me that this salient fact of life is always addresses so insanely on reality televisions shows–“don’t talk about me behind my back!” Um, everyone does it, hello? And most of the time it means nothing. If someone has pissed me off, I will inevitably talk about it to a mutual friend–just to get it off my chest and out of my system. Usually, I am over it once I talk it through with another person–everyone needs to vent, why is this so hard to understand? And it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that…”yes, I was mad at you, but once I talked it through with X I realized it wasn’t anything, I was over it, and why hurt your feelings or start a fight with you when it really wasn’t anything?”). I certainly don’t want to know what people say about me when I’ve irritated them or pissed them off; I’m perfectly happy being oblivious.

With the caveat that if I behave in a way that really gets on someone’s nerves regularly, I would like to know so I can decide to change the behavior or not.

Then again, I’ve never understood the rules of friendship, either.

We finished Midnight Mass last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Mike Flanagan, who also did The Haunting of Hill House (which I was able to enjoy as I merely viewed as fan fiction rather than a straightforward adaptation of the classic novel–one of my favorites), did an excellent job here. It’s a deep meditation on religion and the power of belief, juxtaposed with some serious horror. The acting is superb; the characters deeply drawn and compelling, and it’s hard to look away. I prefer this kind of creepy, unsettling horror to jump scares and gore, frankly. I do recommend the show, but prepared to think some heavy thoughts about the power of religion and its potential for abuse–as well as how easy it is to misinterpret something as holy when it most certainly is not.

And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

Together We’re Better

Yesterday actually turned out to be quite lovely.

I was a little bleary when I got up yesterday morning (my Fitbit advises me I only slept deeply for 3 hours, 48 minutes; the rest was “light sleep” and I woke up three times), but for whatever reason, I decided to start getting to work on things. I started answering emails (I am very careful with email. I refuse to let it control my life, which it easily can; so I answer emails over the weekends and in the mornings, save my responses as drafts, and send them all after lunch. I do not send emails after five pm CST; I do not read them, either. Email at one point took over my life, which made getting anything done impossible and raised my stress levels to unbelievable heights. I realized anyone who absolutely, positively needs to reach me has my cell phone number…and if I don’t trust you with my cell phone number…you don’t really need an answer right away. And guess what? The world didn’t end, I didn’t miss out on anything, and nothing became harder) while reading coverage of the LSU debacle from Saturday night (one thing I did mean to mention and didn’t yesterday; I try not to be overly critical of college athletes because they are basically kids. It’s easy to forget that when you’re watching on television, but when you see them on the sidelines with their helmets off, or while walking down Victory Hill to the stadium in their suits and ties…you see a bunch of teenagers and young men in their early twenties. They are kids—and those baby faces on those big muscular bodies is a very strange juxtaposition sometimes). I decided on the way home from Baton Rouge that while I do, indeed, love football, I really shouldn’t give up my weekends to it all fall. Now that LSU is definitely out of the running for anything, I’ll probably not watch as much football as I would if they were still in contention for anything. I’ll still watch LSU, and occasionally I may spend an afternoon watching a big game—the SEC title game, the play-offs—I am not going to spend every Saturday pretty much glued to the television all day, flipping between games all day. And I also rarely enjoy watching the Saints—I love them, they’re my guys, my team, my heart—but their games are so damned stressful it’s hard to enjoy them, and when the games is over I am always, win or lose, emotionally and physically and mentally exhausted. So, I decided it made more sense to get things done, check in on the score periodically, and not sweat it too much. (Good thing. Like LSU, the Saints led the entire game, folded like a newspaper in the fourth quarter and wound up losing.) I made groceries, filled the car’s gas tank, and before going, I started weeding shit out of my iCloud and saving it all to my back-up hard drive.  I wound up freeing up over four hundred and seven gigabytes in my flash storage, and suddenly my computer was running very quickly again.

And yes, it’s my fault.* I have a gazillion pictures files, going back to digital camera days. I used to back up my hard drive and my flash drives regularly to the cloud—and those folders are enormous. I don’t probably need all of it—I was weeding through bits here and there as I moved the files over to the back-up hard drive (eventually planning on copying them up to Dropbox), and started finding all kinds of interesting things. Story fragments I’d forgotten, book ideas and anthology ideas and essays I’d started; some of these things are in very rough, first draft form—and got left behind as my addled, AHDH-like brain moved on to the next thirty or forty ideas for all of the above. I also was kind of amused to see how I often I plagiarize myself; I had a completely different idea for the book I wanted to call A Streetcar Named Murder fifteen years ago—which I can still use at some point, just have to come up with a new title. I’d forgotten that all the way through the process Need was called A Vampire’s Heart; my editor suggested changing it after I turned the book it. It was a wise choice; my title was very romance sounding and Need was hardly that. It was also interesting seeing, over the years, how many different ideas I’ve had for a gay noir set in the world of ballet (damn you, Megan Abbott!). I discovered that Murder in the Garden District actually began as Murder on the Avenue (a title I can repurpose for an idea I had last week); I found the original files for Hollywood South Hustle, the Scotty book that turned into a Chanse MacLeod, Murder in the Rue Ursulines; I found the files for the Colin book that tells us what he was doing and where he was between Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo; I found the original Paige novel I started writing in 2004, in which an Ann Coulter-like pundit from New Orleans is murdered; I found the first three chapters of the Scotty Katrina book, Hurricane Party High,  in which they don’t evacuate during a fictional hurricane, and the chapters where I rewrote it, had the, evacuate to Frank’s sister’s in rural Alabama (and we meet Frank’s nephew Taylor for the first time—and I also remembered that they belonged to some weird kind of religious cult and that Taylor was going to come to New Orleans in the future to visit during their version of rumspringa, but eventually abandoned the idea completely and never did a Scotty/Katrina book; was reminded that Dark Tide began as Mermaid Inn; that I wrote the first chapter of Timothy during the summer of 2003; and if I even tried to list all the iterations that wound up being #shedeservedit, we would be here all day (Sins of Omission, I think, was my favorite earlier title; again, a completely different book with some slight similarities…I may have to take a longer look at some of those iterations because being reminded of them all, I also remembered that I really liked all the versions).

I also found many, many nonfiction pieces I’ve written over the years—many of which I’d long since forgotten about—so maybe that essay collection won’t take quite as long to pull together as I had originally thought. Huzzah!

And I also discovered something else that I knew but had slipped out of my consciousness: that Bury Me in Shadows was called, for the first and second drafts, Bury Me in Satin—which gives off an entirely different vibe, doesn’t it? I wrote a very early version of it as a short story while in college, called it “Ruins,” but never wrote a second draft because I knew it wasn’t a short story; it needed to be a book, and one day I would write it. I was never completely comfortable with the story, to be honest; I wasn’t sure how I could write a modern novel built around a Civil War legend in rural Alabama. I absolutely didn’t want to write a fucking Lost Cause narrative—which is what this easily could have become, and people might come to it thinking it is, and are going to be very angry when they find out it is not that—but I really wasn’t sure how to tell the story…and in my mind, I thought of it as Ruins—which I freely admit is not a great title, and has been over-used.

As luck would have it, I was watching some awards show—I can’t begin to try to remember what year—and one of the nominated groups performed. I’d never heard of The Band Perry before; and the song they performed, “If I Die Young,” absolutely blew me away. (I just remembered, I kind of used the title as guidance when writing Need—always trying to remember he became undead very young) The first two lines of the chorus are this:

If I die young,

Bury me in satin

And I thought to myself, Bury Me in Satin is a perfect title for the Civil War ghost story! Melancholy and sort of romantic; I’ve always thought of hauntings as more about loss than being terrifying (you do not have to go full out jump scare, use gore or blood or violence to scare the reader, and if you doubt me, read Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home), which is why I’ve always loved the Barbara Michaels novels that were ghost stories. That was the feeling I wanted to convey, that sad creepiness, and longing—I wanted a Gothic feel to the book, and I felt that line captured what I wanted perfectly. But as I wrote it, it didn’t quite feel as right as it did in that moment (I still love the song—and the video is interesting and kind of Gothic, doing a Tennyson Lady of Shalott thing), and then one day it hit me: changed ‘satin’ to ‘shadows’, and there’s your perfect title.

And so it was.

Oh dear, look at the time. Till tomorrow, Constant Reader! I am off to the spice mines! Have a lovely Monday!

*I will add the caveat to this that anything stored in the Cloud should not affect the flash storage in the actual computer and its operating system, and yes, I am prepared and more than willing to die on that hill.

Homage

Gore Vidal was one of three rather important gay male writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War II (the others being Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote), and I have always enjoyed reading his work–even if it’s not page turning material; I like the way he writes and I like the way he tells his stories.

He wrote six or seven major works of fiction based in American history that tell, in their own way, a more clear-eyed vision of what American history was and how the nation developed; called the Narratives of Empire, they certainly weren’t published in order but rather, I gather, in the order that struck his fancy; he was also busy writing other things and feuding with other writers–notably Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley–and he obviously had a flair for the outrageous and controversial; The City and the Pillar, a very frank and daring and sympathetic look at the experiences of one young man navigating the world as a gay man, made him so controversial he was unpublishable for a number of years; he spent the time writing mysteries under the name Edgar Box and writing screenplays. Myra Breckinridge, which undoubtedly does not hold up to modern scrutiny and eyes; the book was clearly intended as satire, examining societal gender constructs and views on sexuality as well as the role of women. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago, and it struck me as quaint; an artifact of a time certainly less enlightened, but trying to head for the light. (It may be worth a reread.) He also wrote Julian the Apostate, which I greatly enjoyed and read one year beside the pool during Saints & Sinners, back when it was in May and we used to always spend the weekend at the Olivier House on Toulouse Street.

But the Narratives of Empire began with, I think, Washington DC, followed by 1876 and later Burr; he also wrote about the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the growth of the American empire in Empire, which I have also read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve not read all the titles yet; but reading Lincoln next after Empire made the most sense to me as some of the real-life characters depicted in that book are also in Lincoln, and it’s been a very long time since I read anything about Lincoln.

Elihu B. Washburne opened his gold watch. The spidery hands shows five minutes to six.

“Wait here,” he said to the driver, who said, “How do I know you’re coming back, sir?”

At the best of times Congressman Washburne’s temper was a most unstable affair, and his sudden outbursts of rage–he could roar like a preacher anticipating hell–were much admired in his adopted state of Illinois, where constituents proudly claimed that he was the only militant teetotaller who behaved exactly like a normal person at five minutes to six, say, in the early morning of an icy winter day–of the twenty-third of February, 1861, to be exact.

“Why, you black—!” As the cry in Washburne’s throat began to go to its terrible maximum, caution, the politican’s ever-present angel, cut short the statesman’s breath. A puff of unresonated cold steam filled the space between the congressman and the Negro driver on his high seat.

Heart beating rapidly with unslaked fury, Washburne gave the driver some coins. “You are to stay here until I return, you hear me?”

Growing up with Southern parents and the so-called “Southern heritage”, Lincoln’s place in history was, to say the least, still resented. The lionization of Lincoln after his death was, in some part, made possible by his murder; there’s not telling what the judgment of history would be on him had he lived to serve out his second term. Would we revile Lincoln for the reconstruction policies he would have followed? How different would the face of our present day nation be had he lived? An enormous mythology has sprung up around Lincoln since his death; “Honest Abe the rail-splitter” is a tale told to school children to this day, or how a young girl told him to grow a beard, and so on and so forth. The Civil War has been analyzed and written about endlessly; no one person could ever hope to read and digest all the documentation that exists of the conflict, let alone all the books published centering the war. I was always interested in Lincoln–even as a child I couldn’t wrap my mind around the mentality that people claiming to be “patriotic Americans” reviled Lincoln and glorified the Confederacy; I still am unable to consider such without triggering a massive amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain–and read lots of children’s books about him, but by the time I was an adult I was no longer interested in reading further biographies of the man. I am relatively uninterested in the possibility that he may have had relationships with men; without definitive proof that will always be a theory, and let’s face it, there is more evidence (although nothing conclusive) about his predecessor James Buchanan’s sexuality than there ever will be about Lincoln’s–hence my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision” I wrote for The Faking of the President.

Lincoln’s task was to preserve the Union in the face of its collapse, and that is what he strove to do. Was secession constitutional? Lincoln didn’t think so; the Constitution did not provide for the dissolution of the Union but at the same time it stated that any rights or restrictions not granted to the federal government in the document thereby fell to the individual states. So, does that mean the states held the right to leave the union? Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t think so, since he threatened to send federal troops into South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Part of the reason I actually wanted to read this book at this time was because of the stark reminder that Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War, serve as proof that mollifying white supremacy and continually compromising with an angry volatile minority, never ends well. (We are seeing it again now with the old Confederate states allied with their rural midwestern states…and of course as always, the ones threatening insurrection or secession claim to be “true patriots.”

Whatever, Mary.

Lincoln serves to humanize the man, and is also equally frank about Lincoln’s own white supremacist beliefs. Is Vidal’s assertion that Lincoln wanted to take the freed slaves and colonize them into Central America or somewhere back in Africa while reimbursing the slave owners for the loss of “property” accurate? It’s not the first time I’ve heard this (never heard it in school, though) and it seems likely to me. I also liked how Vidal got the panic of what it was like to live in Washington during there war so spot on; we never think about that, or how Maryland was a slave state surrounding the district, or that slavery existed and was legal in the district itself; slaves built the White House and the Capital. We never see into Lincoln’s head or from his point of view in this book–a masterful trick of Vidal’s, who thus leaves Lincoln a mystery to the reader.

It’s a compelling narrative, and it also shows us the point of view throughout of one of the conspirators who were hanged for plotting to kill him–David Suratt–and this jumping around from points of view–either of those who admired Lincoln, hated him, or thought him incompetent–gives a more three-dimensional view of the man we have deified for the last 156 years. He was definitely smart, a master politician, and, as Vidal says in the closing paragraphs of the book–if Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was the father of our modern country.

Highly recommended.

1963

And now it’s Saturday. It’s still cold in New Orleans and we still don’t have any heat but it’s not as bad as Texas by any means, and we never lost either power or water pressure. So far we haven’t had a rolling blackout, either–although they were threatened. I spent most of yesterday unpacking and repacking condom packs, while watching history videos on Youtube, done by a local New Orleanian–someone I do not know–correcting revisionist history; it began with his lengthy video on the Confederate propaganda movie Gods and Generals–which I have never seen; I tend to avoid Civil War films because they are all-too frequently Lost Cause narratives at best or defenses of white supremacy at worst–even the ones that don’t center Confederate stories. I have no desire to see either. I was raised on the Lost Cause false-narrative, and I am still kind of bitter about being taught false narratives as truth as a child. I also resent having had to spend so much of my adult life correcting everything I learned that was wrong and/or incorrect; relearning American history without the rose-colored glasses of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny firmly placed on my nose and eyes.

Writing Bury Me in Shadows, methinks, is in some ways for me kind of a reckoning with that “heritage.”

The cold is going to continue through this weekend, but tomorrow is supposed to be relatively normal late winter weather for New Orleans. It will be nice to get back to normal. It’s currently forty degrees and sunny outside, and I’ll take it, thank you very much.

Today I am going to spend most of the day rereading and revising my manuscript. I want to be able to get through the entire thing in one sitting–this way I can catch most of the repetition, and I am going to also be starting to sprinkle the new stuff through the manuscript that needs to be added. I am hoping that on Sunday I can go to the gym and start inputting the changes; Monday I will assess as to whether I believe I can finish before the deadline or not. (I am a firm believer in not waiting until the last minute to let my publisher know the manuscript will be late.) I mean, I do have another full weekend to get it all done, but it’s not going to be super easy. I have to write an entire season of a podcast–or at least, significant excerpts from said podcast–and there’s at least one more chapter that needs to be written. (Depends on the inputted changes I am going to be making as I go; the goal is to make writing that last chapter really easy by making it a “now that everything is over and has been resolved” kind of chapter.)

It’s going to be lovely to be done with the book, to be honest. I started writing this version in the summer of 2015; I wrote the entire first draft in slightly less than one month–without the last chapter; I never did write the last chapter because I knew I was going to have to make changes to the story and why write something I might have to throw completely out? I have always tried to be efficient with my writing–not going off on tangents, not writing things that will have to be cut out later (it’s so painful cutting out entire scenes and chapters)–and knowing that I couldn’t really write the final chapter until I was absolutely certain about the story itself. I know the story now–this is like the eighth draft, seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that took this many drafts (novels, at any rate; I have short stories that have been through eight or more drafts, seriously). I am looking forward to moving on from it at long last; I want to start planning the writing of Chlorine next, while also finishing some short stories and putting together some proposals for other ideas I have. If all goes well, I will be able to write a first draft of Chlorine in April, a first draft of the next Scotty in May, and then spend the summer revising and rewriting both. I’d like to spend the fall finishing other odds and ends I have in my files–“Never Kiss a Stranger” has been crying to me from the files to be finished, for one, and there are a couple of other novellas and short stories I want get done. Granted, if any of the proposals sell I will have to change my writing schedule, but if none of them do sell…well, I have plenty on hand for me to write.

I may even start a new series. I’ve been thinking that a gay cozy mystery might be fun to write. I love puzzles and lots of suspects and things; I’d love to do something along the lines of James Anderson’s The Case of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy, which is probably my favorite cozy mystery of all time; a big mansion, secret passages, jewel thieves, international espionage–all taking place over a house party weekend at an English country home. I’ve always felt it was a shame that those wonderful old classic home house party/small village mysteries the British wrote that I loved to read really couldn’t be replicated in the US…and then later realized that is because those stories are completely rooted in the British class system and what would be comparable here and then…yeah, you see where this went, don’t you? Although some day I will figure out how to do one of those…

I WILL. And it will be marvelous.

I also need to reread The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy again. It’s really quite marvelous; I do hope it holds up.

I’ve also been sort of paging through/rereading the Three Investigators’ The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, which in some ways was a tribute to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone–which I also did with my own Vieux Carré Voodoo–while not finishing the Dana Girls’ The Clue in the Cobweb. I also keep meaning to get back into reading short stories, since my mind is in that weird “I need to finish my book” place where I can’t focus on reading anything new (once the book is done, I am going to spend some serious time with Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things, which I had started reading before locking into “finish the book” mode), so it’s either short stories or rereads until I turn this manuscript in. Anyway, that’s one of my favorite Three Investigators books because it, too, involves a treasure hunt with vague clues (or rather, a riddle of sorts) the boys have to figure out in order to find their new young friend August’s inheritance, the Fiery Eye, a cursed jewel stolen from an idol in a fictional southern Asian nation (Constant Reader will note that Vieux Carré Voodoo also involved the need to solve a riddle to find a cursed jewel stolen from a temple in a fictional southeast Asian country). I also recently–and I don’t remember if I shared this here or not–had the epiphany that the Scotty series, in some ways, is in and of itself a tribute to The Three Investigators…if they were adults and gay and in a “throuple”, as such relationships are called nowadays (I first heard the term in a CDC training). It also occurred to me that many kids’ series involve the main character and two close friends–or if the main characters are a pair (the Hardys and the Danas) they’re inevitably given a close pal who shares their adventures (in fairness, the Dana sisters have several friends who fill that role; some of the books involve several of their friends, but the only one whose name I can recall now is Evelyn Starr–although I believe they also had a friend named Doris Garland, but I am not sure about that name). As I thought about this more, I had to wonder if this was an attempt to steer the books away from homoeroticism or the undercurrent of the main character and his/her best friend being more like a couple then as friends….but I also can’t imagine that being a concern when these books were first conceived? (Although Trixie Belden and her best friend Honey Wheeler certainly play out the butch/femme lesbian dynamic rather convincingly–which I think why in later books in the series they played down Trixie’s “tomboyishness” and tried to make her more of a girly-girl.) Nancy Drew’s first four books featured her and her dear friend Helen Corning; in book five Helen vanishes (she shows up in a couple of later books) and is replaced by cousins Bess and George (again, the butch/femme dynamic at play, even though they are made cousins to avoid such thinking…but George is so damned butch and Bess so femme people made the connection anyway). The Hardys have Chet Morton, who is relentlessly fat-shamed and mocked throughout the entire series (Frank and Joe sometimes aren’t the wonderful boys they are made out to be). I have certainly made note of the homoerotic undercurrent in the Ken Holt series (with his best pal Sandy) and the Rick Brant series (with his best pal Scotty) before; there is none of this in the Three Investigators series because there are three of them, and they are vaguely around thirteen; it is doubtful any of them have gone through complete puberty yet because they still think of girls as kind of alien creatures, which really plays strangely in the series where the male leads are in their later teens….the chasteness of the Hardys with their token girlfriends–like Nancy, Bess and George with their token boyfriends–never quite rings true to me. They don’t even kiss! That probably has more to do with their target audience (nine to thirteen year olds) than anything else, but even when I was a prepubescent kid it struck me as strange.

I still want to try writing my own middle-grade series for kids; I think I may take a month this summer and try to write one and see what happens. I’ve been planning such a series since I was a kid, after all, and my writing career lately has seemed to be all about writing the things I’ve been leaving on the back burner simmering for years.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. My book is calling to me, and I want to read some short stories with the rest of my morning caffeine. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader–and friends in Texas, hope you’re doing okay. I’ve been thinking about all y’all this past week.

Ode to Joy

I went through a Robert Ludlum phase in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s; I don’t remember why exactly I began reading him–spy thrillers and international intrigue have never been of particular interest to me–but I know the first Ludlum I read was The Osterman Weekend, which I didn’t really follow or think was all that great, in all honesty; but I picked up a copy of The Gemini Contenders at a used bookstore and then I was hooked. I bought all of his backlist, and began buying his new novels in hardcover when they were released. I stopped reading Ludlum when Ludlum stopped writing his books–I don’t recall which the last of these was; I see that I am actually incorrect; I stopped reading Ludlum after The Road to Omaha–apparently he wrote and published three more, but this was when I was deep into reading only gay and lesbian fictions for the most part. I was always amazed at how intricately his books were plotted, and many of them–mainly The Gemini Contenders–were my favorite kind of thrillers: the treasure hunt. Ludlum was also where I learned that the best villains, second only to Nazis, came from the Vatican (Dan Brown made a shitload of money using that premise). Even as a fairly uneducated reader and writer, Ludlum’s overuse of exclamation points annoyed me–but I loved his intricate plots, his heroes, an he also wrote some really amazing women characters as well. I’ve been meaning to revisit Ludlum over the last few years–mainly because if I ever really do a Colin spin-off (stand alone or series), Ludlum would be a good author to study (along with LeCarre, of course) for plotting and structural purposes.

I’ve also always kind of wanted to do a gay Jason Bourne type story–which could also work for Colin as well.

Hmmm. I mean, maybe on one of his missions he gets amnesia? It’s a thought.

I had a pretty good day yesterday. I managed to get back on schedule with the book yesterday, which is great, and so today I am going to start going through it all, cleaning it up more and writing an outline as I go, and figuring out where to put the new things that need to go in it. I also need to do some writing rather than revise/rewriting; I’ve figured out a great way to bridge back story and build it into the book without having it be an actual part of the story/story, and it’s something that could easily build into another book or perhaps a series. Who knows? I also managed to work through my email inbox–the endlessly refilling inbox; it’s like Sisyphus or trying to clean the Augean stables or killing the hydra, I swear to God, and I have let it slide for far too long. I’m trying to get my life better organized–I don’t know what kind of fog I’ve been in, or for how long I’ve been actually in it, but I do know this: it’s gone on for far longer than I should have allowed it to, that’s one thing I know for certain. I also don’t know how long this “non-fog” situation will last (probably it will come to a screeching halt on Monday when the alarm goes off at six in the morning), but I need to take full advantage of it while I can. I also need to get to the gym today and groceries need to be made. After I finished work I watched a history program about a woman who was a Union spy in Richmond during the Civil War, which also talked about a young slave girl she raised and loaned out to the Davises so she could also spy on them and report back. What an interesting novel that would make–for a Black author to take on. I’d love to see what a writer like say, Kellye Garrett or Rachel Howzell Hall or Colson Whitehead could make of the story…history is chockfull of wonderful stories to be told, and after I finished watching that we watched Framing Britney, which was kind of chilling…I’m not sure what’s going on there, but the documentary made a very compelling case, and the thought that someone of her stature and stardom was essentially blackmailed into giving up control of herself, her career, and her money (they held their kids over her head) and she cannot break free of the conservatorship is truly frightening. I said to Paul at one point, “People always thought she was stupid but she wasn’t–she’s very smart; she just had a thick Southern accent and so, of course, that meant she was an idiot.” It also reminded me of an idea I had a while back of doing a modern-day version of Valley of the Dolls set in Las Vegas; a Britney-type filling in for Neely, more of a tragic role than Susann’s monster-in-training.

I mean, it could work.

Its gray and foggy this morning in New Orleans; with a bit of a chill in the air as well. I am going to drink some more coffee and then kickstart my day by going to make groceries before coming home to go to the gym and then getting cleaned up and probably working on trying to finish responding to my emails and putting away/cleaning up my desk area before rereading the first ten chapters of the manuscript I have revised and doing a hard edit–these revisions were pretty simple, really–and catching the things I know I was noticing when I was revising: duplications, saying the same thing in different chapters (this is my worst habit, repeating myself–which is a direct result of writing books a chapter at a time and then not remembering what was in previous chapters, or if I’ve said something before. It’s also trickier because I’m writing it in the present tense, and there are flashbacks and memories that have to be written in the past tense, which is going to undoubtedly give my editor fits. The present tense for the things happening in the present works much better than the past tense I usually write in; but not having a lot of experience with present tense is making this much more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Perhaps I should consult Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style? After all, I do have a copy sitting here on my desk in easy reach; mayhap after the gym and getting cleaned up I shall retire to my easy chair with the manuscript and that copy of Strunk & White.

I also slept really well last night, which was lovely. The bed was most comfortable, and it was probably the best night’s sleep I’ve had in quite some time, which is, of course, lovely but begs the question, why did I sleep so much better and restfully last night than I have in quite some time? I did have some Sleepytime tea before I went to bed, which could have had something to do with it…I always mean to have a cup before bed but always manage to forget; I will definitely have one again tonight. The problem is that my body will adjust and adapt to almost anything relatively quickly; so it’s not like the tea will work every night…but if last night was indicative, I need to make more of an effort to have a cup more regularly than I have been doing.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader. I certainly intend to do so.

Superheated

And now it is Sunday in the Lost Apartment. I trust everyone had a most lovely and delightful Saturday? I did; I spent most of it cleaning and reading and watching figure skating and making groceries and running errands and doing all sorts of things that didn’t involve writing. I’m not entirely sure again why I am avoiding writing–yesterday methinks it was primarily due to the hangover of the final push to finish the short story, as well as trying to purge it out of my brain. Part of the joy of being a writer apparently is the absolute guarantee of self-doubt and second guessing everything once you’ve turned the story/manuscript in. I spent way too much time yesterday wondering “maybe I should have done this” and “maybe I should have done that” and on and on it goes–with the occasional second thoughts about the novel I turned in two weeks ago as well. Enormously lovely, you see.

But the figure skating was fun to watch, as always, and congratulations to our national champions (the men’s title will be decided today, with Nathan Chen most likely becoming the first US man to win five consecutive national titles in a row since Dick Button’s post-war dominance, winning seven in a row and two Olympic gold medals (a feat unparalleled until Japan’s Yuzuru Honyu won the last two Olympics). It’s also interesting to me how strong the United States has become in the ice dancing discipline this century, after decades of not being up to international snuff. The Saints also are playing today in the play-offs; playing Tampa Bay and Tom Brady for the third time and hoping to pull off the hat trick.

Today is going to be mostly spent reading and cleaning, methinks; I need to focus on my reread of the Kansas book manuscript and make some decisions about where it’s going to go, how to clean it up, what can be kept and what can be discarded. The manuscript currently sits somewhere around 75000 words, give or take; I need to add some more to it while taking other stuff out; strengthening some bits while underplaying others. I am also still greatly enjoying Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and am looking forward to spending some more time with Mary Russell…although I must confess that I am going to have to be very careful with reading more Sherlockian fiction, whether it’s actually Conan Doyle’s or pastiches, because revisiting the Sherlockian universe makes me want to write some more about my own Sherlockian universe. The period of time in New Orleans history where I have put my Holmes has already been written about by David Fulmer, in his series beginning with Jass, and I may have to revisit those novels–it’s been a long time since I read them, and I also remember enjoying them. Anyway, I am digressing, as always, from the original point: writing that Sherlock story has given me the bug to write about him some more, and as usual, I am thinking not only in terms of a short story but of a novel as well…with the full knowledge that actually Sherlockians will undoubtedly see my own feeble attempts as an abomination and heresy.

I’ve also been reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln in dribs and drabs. I am enjoying it, but the lovely thing about Vidal’s writing is it isn’t like reading a thriller or a good mystery; you can put it down at any point and walk away from it, not missing it until you pick it up again. I am a fan of Vidal’s, even though he seems as though he would have been a horrible person to know–a snob both intellectually as well as in terms of class–but he also was fiercely intelligent and witty, and he looked at the United States with a jaundiced, unsentimental eye. I don’t think I’ve really read much about Lincoln as an adult–I of course read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals back in the day, but don’t really remember much about it. Yesterday I also started reading through my copy of The Black Death by Phillip Ziegler–I have a vague idea for a murder mystery, most likely a short story, set during the plague years in Florence; I don’t think there is much modern fiction set during that time, so of course I am interested in it. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year reading plague histories and fictions (yet somehow not rereading Stephen King’s The Stand) and I still would like to get back to my story “The Flagellants,” which I was having a lot of fun with last spring.

I’m also seeing conversations on-line about whether authors should include the pandemic in their fictions or not, which seems kind of counter-intuitive; did New York writers pretend 9/11 didn’t happen? Did New Orleans writers pretend Katrina was a near-miss? In both cases the answer is no. You may not want to write fiction set during the pandemic, but we cannot pretend the pandemic didn’t happen–particularly since it’s on-going. It’s hard to write about something–even harder to read about it–when you are still in the midst of it because you don’t know how it’s going to end. By the time I started writing Murder in the Rue Chartres it was already apparent New Orleans was going to come back from the flood, even if what the new city would look like was still being debated, was still uncertain, and up in the air. I’ve never written about Scotty’s experiences with Katrina, rather choosing to pick up his story several years later with the flood, the evacuation and everything else entailed in the destruction of 90% of the city in the rearview mirror. I get that readers might not want to read about and relive this past year plus; but I don’t see how you can write honestly about an America where it never happened. The last four years of this administration–including the sack of the Capitol–also cannot be entirely ignored either. So what to do? I suspect history isn’t going to be terribly kind to the insurrectionists nor the anti-maskers (deservedly so), particularly since they are the ones who politicized public health and safety because they believed the Mammon they’ve worshipped like a cult for so long; their own golden calf, as it were–despite all the warnings in their Bible. Ah, the dilemmas we modern writers face!

I do sometimes wonder if writers during the Civil War wondered if they should write about the war or not in their work.

And on that note, tis time for me to start mining spice here on Kessel, so it’s off into the mines with me. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!

Miss Americana and The Heartbreak Prince

One question that always exasperates authors is the old standard, where do you get your ideas from?

I get why it annoys writers to be asked this; who wants to be psycho-analyzed on a panel or at a reading? It’s a process, of course, and one that cannot be distilled into a quick, witty, quotable sound bite–and the ultimate truth is, it’s almost always different in every case–whether it’s a novel, an essay or a short story; I certainly have not gotten inspiration the same way every time. A lot of the Alabama fiction, for example, that I have written/am writing/have thought about writing, comes from stories my grandmother told me when I was a child about the past–mostly her family’s past, and certainly those stories were self-aggrandizing and self-serving, and still others were apocryphal: the ancestress, for example, who killed a Yankee soldier come to rob her during the Civil War? Yeah, that one was almost certainly lifted from Gone with the Wind–but I have since come to find out that Mitchell probably took the story from legends as well–that story seems to exist everywhere in local legend throughout the former Confederacy (I mention this in passing in Bury Me in Shadows, which also originated in one of my grandmother’s stories).

A while back, I started thinking about doing period novels centering gay male characters and telling their stories about the times when prim-and-proper society swept all things gay under the rug and homophobia was king (or Queen, I suppose). I had already come up with a great idea for a gay noir centered around a health club that operated as a money-laundering front for the local mob in a city in Florida called Muscles, which I hope to write at some point…I cannot recall exactly how or why Muscles led into thinking about other one-word titled gay noir novels set in different periods of the twentieth century; but there you have it. I think Muscles led me to think about setting one in a gay bar in the early 1990’s, built around the time gay porn star Joey Stefano was arrested while performing at a Tampa gay bar for public indecency; Indecency was such a great title that I couldn’t forget it–and I also figured I could link the two books, the way I always link my books together in an Easter eggy kind of way that the majority of people don’t notice but pleases me immensely. Right round that same time a gay man who was very active as a fundraiser and a donor for political causes died; he had started out owning a company that published gay-interest magazines with nude models and had been arrested, and served time, for using the mail to deliver pornography; I wanted to write about him and the rise of gay porn films in Southern California and call it Obscenity. So there it was: a trilogy of loosely connected gay noirs I hoped to write someday…and then one day, as I was blogging–I think maybe two years ago? I don’t recall–my mind was wandering (as it is wont to do) and I started riffing about an idea that was forming in my head as I wrote the entry for a book set in 1950’s Hollywood, dealing with the underground gay community, McCarthyism, and scandal-mongering that would open with a gay movie star’s body being found naked in the surf at the beach…only the autopsy found that the water in his lungs actually contained chlorine…so he hadn’t drowned, he’d been murdered and the body moved. I called it Chlorine; and that was, for me, kind of the end of it–I wrote the idea down, created a folder for it, and posted the entry.

So, I am sure you can imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter a few hours later and had a ridiculously high amount of–what do they call them? Mentions? Anyway, I had no idea what had triggered this–I rarely get much interaction there–and so when I went to check…some people had read my blog and were all about Chlorine–and the more they tweeted about it, the more people had gotten drawn into this conversation. I was thrilled, to say the least, to see so much attention on-line for something that was really just an amorphous idea…and then a great first line occurred to me: The earthquake woke me up at nine in the morning. So I opened a new Word document, typed in that line, and next thing you know, I had an over 3000 word first chapter written, and the entire plot was forming in my mind already. I took voluminous notes, and decided that, once I got finished with everything I was in the midst of writing already, I would give Chlorine a shot.

And in the meantime, I could start reading up on the period, gay Hollywood, and root myself firmly in the period.

Which is how I came across Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson.

On November 29, 1954, The Hollywood Reporter’s gossip columnist Mike Connolly wrote about the proud, happiest day of Rock Hudson’s life. The movie star had just been cast in George Stevens’ cattle-and-oil epic Giant, and Connolly’s one-line blurb commemorating Rock’s celebration party was as cryptic as it was pumped with news ready to break: “Saturday Mo-somes: Phyllis Gates & Rock Hudson, Margaret Truman & Henry Willson.”

In one of his rare acts of discretion, newshound Connolly dispensed with the ampersand that should have wedded the names Rock Hudson and Henry Willson. Fifty years into the future, “Mo-somes” could be read as slang for the two men’s sexual orientation. But not in 1954. Back then, “Mo” meant something far less provocative but nearly as colorful

“Mo” was short for the Mocambo, the Mount Olympus of Sunset Strip nightclubs. Pure tinseltown fantasy, the Mocambo was an over-heated study in contrasts where oversized tin flowers and humongous velvet balls with fringe festooned flaming candy-cane columns that framed a dance floor designed to induce claustrophobia when more than two couples got up to fox-trot. The tables were equally miniscule, making it possible for the establishment to charge lots of money for not much food, which nobody could see. Overhead, rococo candelabras gave off so little illumination that revelers kept bumping into each other by mistake, and sometimes now, as they tried to check themselves out in the flecked mirrors that recast everybody’s reflection in tones of warm, flattering, fake gold.

I had a vague idea of who Henry Willson was before I read this book–he appeared in the Rock Hudson bio I read a few months ago as well as in Tab Hunter’s memoirs–and of course, Jim Parsons played him in the Ryan Murphy alternate-history Hollywood. I was also vaguely aware–my memory is a lot dimmer than it used to be–of the gay Hollywood underground; the Sunday afternoon pool parties at George Cukor’s, for example–and I had read some gay Hollywood histories (the ones by William J. Mann are particularly good), but I knew my main character in Chlorine needed a Henry Willson-like agent, and so I needed to research Henry Willson. Willson was, of course, notorious in his time and the passage of time since his heyday has done nothing to soften that image. He was the definitive “casting couch” agent–and per this book, which is very well written and very entertaining–men who wanted to be movie stars (whether gay, straight or bi) were more than willing to service Henry if it meant a leg up in the business. And Henry did work very hard for his clients, polishing rough material into diamonds for the camera. He taught them how to speak, how to walk, the proper silverware, how to behave in public; manners and etiquette. Henry believed that talent wasn’t as important to being a movie star as having star quality–the indescribable something that all major stars have, that is impossible to describe–and he knew what he was doing. He also frequently renamed them–hence the proliferation of the one syllable first names with the two or three syllable last names: Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Guy Madison, etc.

This book provided a wealth of information as well as inspiration for me, as did the Rock Hudson biography I read several months ago. This period of Hollywood history is fascinating, and I love that writing this book–or rather, planning and researching, since I haven’t really started writing it–is giving me an amazing excuse to study gay Hollywood history and the post-war film industry.

Make no mistake about it–Henry Willson was good at what he did, but he was also a terrible person; trying to make it in a homophobic culture, society and industry at the time in which he lived would definitely twist a person. He was an arch-conservative; a Log Cabin Republican of his time, friends with the horrific Roy Cohn. Was it camouflage to help protect him and his clients from the Red Scare days of McCarthyism, when being queer was also just as suspect? Or was he really that terrible of a person? The author makes no judgments; rather leaving it to the reader to. make up their own minds about who Henry was as a person. As terrible as he was–and some of the things he did, like the casting couch, were pretty unforgivable–I did feel sorry for him in some ways, and in basing a character on him I kind of have to find the humanity in the monster. He was not attractive in a business that revolved around beauty; while the straight male pigs who ran the business used their power to force women to sleep with them, Henry used and abused his own power to get beautiful men to sleep with him.

My own main character–a second-tier movie star who slept his way into parts and a career–is also not entirely likable; but I think I’ve gotten deep enough inside of his head to at least make him identifiable and relatable to the reader…but I guess we will just have to wait and see.

I do recommend this book, if you’re interested in Hollywood history in general or gay Hollywood history specifically.